The dust – it’s not dust, it is stone, milled to powder between much larger stones, like rough flour – this powder is between her teeth, in her ears, caking her eyes. She has breathed it in for two days and now it silts up her lungs and her stomach. It has run out of her down her legs and back into the stones underneath. It covers her skin.
The girl can move – just her fingers and the merest shifting of her feet. She can breathe and sigh and at first she can spit dirt from her mouth, but soon her tongue, and cheeks and lips are too dry for that. She groans a little at first, but later she is silent in the dark. She knows that on her back she carries her house, her street, even the whole town.
Sometimes there are trickles of stone through gaps in the dark. They sound like water, or the roll of dice. She would like to drink, to reach out for the stones. When bigger pebbles fall, the sound reminds her of the footsteps passing under her window, before.
She is unsure if she sleeps, or just mimics sleep, lying there, but she hears muffled voices, like the framing of dreams. The stones cascade in the distance and she looks toward the sound, out of the corner of an eye, and there is a tiny beam of light, which switches off, as, at last, she feels nothing.
The men have quietened into whispers as the circling dog is called away and they delve into the rubble with torchlight. The light flickers between beams and blocks, and chases the shadows of broken furniture. The men judge it is safe to lift, piece by piece, the shattered walls. The light runs inside more easily and they think they have seen the pale remnant of a body. The man sighs. Then he sees the tiniest movement – a finger, a hand, a wrist.
His instinct is to lunge for the hand, but he knows he must be careful of the shock that can flood in under the skin. So he picks off the stones, willing the heaviness from them, pulling at them as if they could be made of spun sugar. And suddenly he has a hold – the girl, dusty grey hair falling across her face. He lifts her up to his shoulders as she murmurs and he steps up out of the mess of rubble onto its summit. The crowd cheers softly, so fragile is this threshold between life and death. As they descend, the man carries her across his arms, head bent toward hers, a pietà of dust and flesh.
Their picture is sent into the world and hangs there for all to hold. But their bond is awkward, heavy. Passing in the street, long afterwards, they look away. Each fears they will see the other’s crime: all the lives he couldn’t save, all the hope she cannot carry.
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